|Location Map ( geo)|
New Zealand consists of two main, and many other, much smaller, islands. The North Island is far more populous than the South Island, and is home to the country's capital – Wellington – as well as to New Zealand's largest city – Auckland. Approximately a third of all New Zealanders inhabit Auckland and its metropolitan area, which spans a ragged isthmus towards the north of the country. South Island is much more sparsely populated, with just over a million people, nearly two-thirds of whom live in its largest city – Canterbury.
New Zealand roads share many similarities with those in the UK. Vehicles drive on the left, with solid white verge lines and dotted white centre lines. However, solid yellow centre lines are also used (to indicate no overtaking), and even S2 roads can often have wide 'hard shoulders' beyond the verge lines. There are also many thousands of kilometres of gravel road maintained by the state in one way or another.
The State Highway network
The main roads and motorways in New Zealand are maintained by the State Government, with local roads looked after by the local authorities. The main network is numbered as State Highways, with routes given a number between 1 and 99 (some have never been used). A and B suffixes are also occasionally used, either for spurs or alternative routes. The few motorways are numbered as part of the main road network, and while all roads in the State Highway Network are officially given an SH prefix, this is not shown on signs. Instead, a red shield background around the number is used to identify the network.
Whilst the vast majority of State Highways are surfaced, this is often not to the same standards as on UK roads, and the network still incorporates many kilometres of gravel road. Observations of roadworks on the network suggest that while tarmac is used in urban areas and on high-traffic routes, other parts of the network, especially on South Island, are more often surface dressing laid directly over the base layers / gravel surface. This is not as bad as it sounds, however, as winter weather is not as harsh as in the UK, and traffic levels are generally far lower.
Dual carriageways are rare in New Zealand away from the many urban areas, with S2+1 much more common to allow faster traffic to overtake. Sometimes these sections overlap to create S4, and some 2+1 sections do permit overtaking in the opposite direction, thus forming prioritised S3s. However, many roads have wide shoulders, and with carriageway widths generally generous, slow traffic is encouraged to keep well left to permit overtaking. Most 2+1 sections have 'Keep Left unless Passing' signs, and there are also many shorter 'Slow Vehicle Bays' signed where longer 2+1 sections cannot be accommodated. Many junctions have generous right turn lanes, and it seems that traffic turning onto the main road is given an acceleration lane in the centre of the road, which can be a bit un-nerving when first encountered. Undertaking is widespread on motorways, although the keep left rule is much more closely observed on dualled roads and 2+1 sections.
New Zealand doesn't have a full motorway network; the country's motorways are concentrated in the main urban areas:
- Auckland - SH1, SH16, SH18, SH20, SH20A (several improvements / extensions ongoing)
- Tauranga - SH2
- Hamilton - SH1 (two sections)
- Wellington / Paraparaumu - SH1 (being extended), SH2
- Christchurch - SH1, SH76 (not currently connected together)
- Dunedin - SH1 to the south; the road named Northern Motorway is in fact largely S2+1 and not signed as a motorway
The quality of these motorways varies from D2M without hard shoulders up to some very complicated junctions in the Auckland area with four or five lanes in each direction. The motorway restrictions appear from signage to relate only to the prohibition of cyclists and pedestrians, and it is often not that obvious where motorways start and end.
Motorway junctions are numbered, although the numbering doesn't appear on all mapping. The numbers appear to be predominantly by chainage rather than numerically, with letter suffixes where more than one exit occurs in quick succession; thus in Auckland SH1 enjoys several A, B and even C exits as it fights its way through the central business district (CBD).
There are three sections of toll roads in New Zealan: the Orewa and Waiwera bypass on SH1 and short sections of SH2 and SH29 around Tauranga.
State Highway numbering
The State Highways are numbered roughly by zone, although the single-digit routes do not form the zone boundaries, and often extend well beyond the zones.
- Zone 1 generally lies north of Auckland
- Zone 2 lies between Auckland and Hamilton
- Zone 3 spans the island from Hamilton to Gisborne
- Zone 4 lies to the west of North Island, between New Plymouth and Taupo
- Zone 5 is to the south of North Island
- Zone 6 covers the northern part of South Island
- Zone 7 is centred on Christchurch
- Zone 8 lies between Timaru and Dunedin
- Zone 9 is centred on Invercargill in the far south.
Aside from the State Highway network, there is a vast network of other roads in New Zealand, the majority of which in rural areas are unpaved or gravel roads, and are therefore largely off limits to hire vehicles. There are also several beaches which are open to traffic as highways, most famously Ninety Mile Beach at the northern end of the country, but also beaches further south on North Island, with one such being found at Foxton on the Manawatu River. Other than in Auckland, there is no public numbering system for any of these roads.
As noted above, Auckland does number some of its more important routes. The numbers restart at 1 and extend into the low 30s, with no public prefix. As local roads they are signed in white on blue, and use white shields instead of the red shields of State Highways.
New Zealand's speed limits are expressed in kilometres per hour. All multiples of 10 from 20 to 100 are used within the country, with 100 km/h being the national maximum speed on all roads, including motorways.
- 20 - occasionally used in road work areas; no permanent 20 zones observed. It is also the maximum speed when passing stationery school buses, in either direction.
- 30 - commonly used in road works and a few permanent zones, including Auckland city centre.
- 40 - speed limit in school zones when lights flash.
- 50 - equivalent to 30 mph in the UK; standard urban speed limit; repeaters rarely seen.
- 60 - rare limit used in some urban areas
- 70 - equivalent to 40 mph in the UK; widely used in suburban and village locations, also used as buffer zones
- 80 - equivalent to 50 mph in the UK; commonly used as buffer zones and also in rural areas with occasional properties or poor visibility
- 90 - occasionally used as a reduction on the standard 100 limit
- 100 - equivalent to 60/70 mph in the UK; generally the maximum speed limit; repeaters rarely seen. Most of the State Highway Network explicitly signs this limit using 100 roundels; however local roads are more likely to use the NSL sign.
- 110 - a new maximum limit introduced on the Tauranga Eastern Link Motorway and to be introduced on the Waikato Expressway once it is completed
In addition to the above limits, most bends also have signed advisory limits. These always end with a 5 and range from 25 to 95 km/h. The speeds are often signed on advance bend warning signs, and also on the chevron signs. On the State Highway Network these are normally black on Yellow. It appears that there are regional differences to these limits, with some of the regions giving reasonably accurate advisory maximums, while others can be up to 20 or 30 km/h lower than the maximum attainable in the same vehicle.
Rather unusually, many of the bridges in New Zealand appear to have been built as part of a larger project. Date stones seem few and far between, but a few of them have been observed, dated in the late 1930s and mid to late 1950s, suggesting a massive project interrupted by the war. Furthermore, there are many observable similarities between the design of these bridges and that of those built as part of the road improvement projects in the Scottish Highlands in the late 1920s and early 1930s, perhaps hinting at connections between the engineering teams. Invercoe Bridge on the former route of the A82 in Glencoe is an example in Scotland of the bridge types seen in New Zealand, even with the same perforated parapet design. However, the same structure design was used elsewhere across the Highlands, with differing parapet styles.
Many of these older bridges are now coming to the end of their useful life, just as they are in Scotland. Whilst the precise reasons are unclear, they are often narrow bridges, unsuited to the ever wider size of modern vehicles, particularly when travelling at speed. They also rarely accommodate pedestrians or cyclists, leading to additional infrastructure needs. As traffic volumes have grown, so also the old meandering alignments of many roads has called for the provision of new bridges on straighter alignments, and so the country is currently in the process of replacing many of the bridges.
On quieter roads, many of the bridges are still single-track, even when the road either side is two-lane. This means that many warning signs are necessary, and one of the commonest road markings is 'One Lane Bridge'. A lot of these bridges seem to be truss bridges, some just having trusses along either side of the roadway, while the longer spans are full box-trusses, often with rather poor clearances for some of the larger trucks on New Zealand's roads.
Vehicles and vehicle registrations
Although historically New Zealand sourced many of its cars from UK / Australian manufacturers, approximately two-thirds of the vehicles on the road today come from Japanese manufacturers. Only 15-20% are from European companies, with the proportion higher amongst lorries than cars. Many of the cars on the roads are models never seen in the UK, not just Holdens, but many weird (and sometimes wonderful) Japanese models as well. Cars also seem to survive better than in the UK, with a much higher proportion of 1980s/90s models still on the road. The New Zealand equivalent of the UK's MOT is the WOF (Warrant of Fitness).
A smaller population means that there are far fewer vehicles on the roads than in the UK. As a result, the system of vehicle registration marks, whilst broadly similar in origin to that used in the UK, is much less complex. At first vehicles carried plates with one or two letters followed by up to four numbers. However, at some time around 2001, this system came to an end, and an additional letter was added, so that registration plates now have three letters followed by two or three numbers. Although originally allocated locally, the majority of vehicles still on the roads carry plates from a single national allocation system – although local offices are often allocated batches rather than just the next available number.
Trailers and motorcycles each have separate, more complicated, systems, and tractors appear to share the motorcycle system, or a reverse of it, although this is based on just a couple of observations. All plates are black on white both front and rear, although older vehicles can still carry white on black (as in the UK), but they are unusual. There are also small numbers of red-on-white plates, and a single example of green-on-white has been observed, the special signicance of which is unclear.